THE MARINARA-GO-ROUND

What do you call a neighborhood Italian joint featuring friendly service, good value and solid, occasionally outstanding food?

These days I'd call it a miracle.
The old-fashioned family Italian restaurant seems to be going the way of the family farm. Now, recipes get their first tests in the accounting department, portions are measured to machine-tool specifications and high-priced consultants scrutinize every aspect of the decor except the height of the men's-room urinals.

But although endangered, the yeoman Italian-restaurant owner isn't extinct. Here in the Valley we visited three neighborhood places that made us consider changing neighborhoods. At first, Grandinetti's Pasta House & Bar looks a bit too upscale for a local hangout. There's some statuary, arches with inlaid brick and several small rooms and alcoves. In an odd twist for a neighborhood restaurant, those areas are reserved for adults. Come with kids and you're sentenced to a front-room Siberia just inside the door. Siberia here is not just a figure of speech. The place is cooled to the same temperature as the penguin house at the San Diego Zoo.

But the service is so warm, and the food so appealingly homey, that our initial reserve quickly melted.

All meals come with soup and salad. In fact, our waiter brought the evening's bean soup before we even ordered. When he returned and saw my kid's empty bowl, he asked her if she wanted another.

The kids wheedled us into ordering garlic bread. Grandinetti's version was worth the two bucks. Thick hunks of Italian bread arrived slathered with melted cheese and lots of garlic and basil. It more than made up for the rather ordinary salads.

Except for the spaghetti and linguini, Grandinetti's makes all its own pasta. After a few bites, if I closed my eyes, I'd have sworn I was back in Little Italy. The pasta's that good.

Linguini with clam sauce carried a heaping pile of tender clams, fragrant with herbs. In case the clam sauce-linguini ratio got out of whack, the waiter provided a small pitcher of extra sauce.

Veal tortellini, a special that night, was superb. Tasty tortellini came stuffed with seasoned ground veal and cheese, and the rich Alfredo sauce brought out the delicate flavor without smothering it. Like all the dishes, the portion was huge.

The ravioli and lasagna also had major league quality. Half a dozen doughy ravioli squares in a light red sauce were good enough to have one kid balk at handing me my customary tithe. The lasagna was thick, cheesy and incredibly filling.

As we downed our meals, Papa Grandinetti came by to chat. An untied red apron flapped over his ample belly, testament to his culinary prowess and 18 years in business.

He brought over some toys for the kids and a couple of freebie brownies he'd just whipped up in the kitchen. Then he asked my youngest daughter a question.

"I speak two languages," he said, "and one of them is English. What's the other?"
Italian, guessed our little Rhodes scholar. "Nope," he answered. "It's dog."
He then proceeded to bay and howl, with remarkably accurate canine inflections. They don't teach this in the Customer Relations course at the Cornell School of Restaurant Management. Those with ordinary appetites might have been tempted to call it an evening at this point. But my family eats like longshoremen who've just spent the day unloading hundred-pound coffee sacks on the docks.

So we ordered a round of desserts. An excellent cannoli, dense and not too sweet, and kid-approved spumoni capped the meal.

We'll be back to play in Mr. Grandinetti's neighborhood.

Tony & Maria's Trattoria & Pizzeria also oozes neighborhood charm. A small place, with maybe a dozen tables, it's decorated in Basic Joint: Formica-topped tables, green blinds and posters heavy on beer themes. The radio was appropriately tuned to the oldies station. The Beach Boys and the Crystals fit this old-fashioned restaurant perfectly.

As the menu explains, there's a real Tony and Maria behind the place. They founded it, sold it, took it back again. On a recent Thursday night, the place was crowded with a mix of neighborhood types that highlighted its broad appeal. A tattooed biker couple puffed endless cigarettes at a window table. Three chic women, obviously straight from the office, took off their suit jackets and quaffed some beers. A mom tried to placate her wailing kids by handing them pieces of cutlery. Soon we were ducking forks and listening to the drum solo from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" played with spoons.

But who cared? Our waitress was friendly and efficient, and the food was first-rate.

Here, dinners come with salad or soup of the day. The kids balked at cream of broccoli, but the adult palates found it creamy with just the right veggie intensity. The salad was better than I've had in places with $20 entrees: lettuce, tomato, red onion, green pepper, olives, shredded cheese and mushrooms (canned, unfortunately) in a good, house-Italian dressing.

The main dishes arrived in oblong casserole dishes, each topped with melted cheese and homemade marinara sauce. It was hard to tell which was which without digging in, but nobody complained about the excavation.

Spinach lasagna--the most expensive item on the menu at $6.25--was a winner. Lots of noodles, lots of ricotta, lots of spinach, lots of sauce and lots of good eating. Mostaccioli with Sicilian-style eggplant got my eggplant-loving taste buds in gear. Cheese tortellini and ravioli were hits with the kids.

The desserts could use some work, although maybe Tony and Maria figure so few people will have room for them, it's hardly worth the effort.

You can no more sneak dessert past the Seftel clan, however, than you can slip dawn past a rooster.

Tortoni tartufo was a small scoop of amaretto-flavored ice cream rolled in nuts. It was pricey at $2.75, and just ordinary. Nor did the cannoli inspire any satisfied sighs. Best was a cinnamon-tinged rice pudding, creamy and not too sweet.

As we got up to go, our waitress walked by with a gorgeous-looking pizza. Hot and bubbly, it seemed to be topped with everything except a human sacrifice. "You'll just have to come back and try it," she smiled, noting our longing gazes. Nothing wrong with Tony and Maria's neighborhood, we decided.

Sal Rinaldo's greets you with every clich‚ of Italian decor except a booth marking a gangland rub-out: plastic, red-checked tablecloths, Chianti bottles with melted wax, neon beer signs, and an endless tape of pre-1960 Italian melodies.

The dinner salad here was terrific: Tomatoes, real mushrooms, olives, lettuce, pepperoncini and crumbly blue cheese come with the zesty house dressing. And it didn't hurt to have the fat, garlicky breadsticks that come with the entrees, or draft beer in a frosted mug. As at Grandinetti's and Tony & Maria's, you won't get shortchanged on your main dishes. Priced between five and ten dollars, they're simple, tasty and filling.

The shrimp scampi looked delicious: five big shrimp soaked in garlic and butter over linguini. I'd like to tell you how they tasted, but my daughter polished them off before I got my napkin spread over my lap. She assured me that I didn't actually need a sample. "Just say they're really good," she suggested helpfully.

Fortunately, the rest of the family lacked her fork speed. Pasta Rinaldo was thin spaghetti topped with sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, pepper and olives simmered in a red-wine sauce. It was pleasing and hearty. Manicotti and ravioli were crammed with lots of cheese in a nice tomato sauce. The stuffed bread, filled with sausage, peppers and cheese, was enough to satisfy the hungriest appetite.

Only the tortellini pagno fino fell short. Overcooked tortellini in a bland Alfredo sauce came sprinkled with peas, but with no trace of the bacon the menu promised.

The kids were real pleased with the Italian ices for dessert. On a hot Phoenix evening, they're the next best thing to a trip to San Diego. I recounted how I used to buy Italian ices from a street vendor when I was a kid, and then sit down on my stoop and slowly lick them. They asked what a stoop was. (It's the front steps of a brownstone.) Then they pleaded to be spared other details of my youth.

We should have stuck with the Italian ices and our memories.
The $2.95 cannoli here bore little resemblance to the famed Italian pastry. Surely Sal knows about good cannoli, but he must imagine most of his customers don't. For some reason, too, there's tiramisu, an exotic Italian dessert that's way beyond the capacity of Sal or his supplier. Man's reach should exceed his grasp, but not in neighborhood Italian restaurants.

These kinds of places can continue to survive only as long as they reliably provide traditional southern Italian fare at reasonable prices. If you live around Grandinetti's, Tony & Maria's or Sal Rinaldo's, it's still a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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